The 10 Essential Advertising People of the Year: No. 5 Kevin Roberts

In a banner year for unevolved men, Saatchi & Saatchi's chairman reminded us how high the problem still goes.

For better or worse, 2016 was a landmark year in advertising. To mark its conclusion, Campaign US is highlighting 10 people we believe are essential to understanding how it all went down. We will be counting down our choices starting on Dec. 9, with our No. 1 most essential person revealed on Dec. 22. Click here to see the list as it is revealed.

It was a pratfall finish to a brilliant career. In July, Kevin Roberts, chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi and former CEO of Pepsi Canada, practically swallowed his foot in an interview with Business Insider's Lara O'Reilly in which he proclaimed that "the fucking debate" about gender equality was "all over," implied women lacked upward ambition and picked a remarkably dumb fight with adland's provocateur-in-chief, Cindy Gallop.

It was just so 2016. Three months earlier, Gustavo Martinez had resigned his post as chairman and CEO of J. Walter Thompson after a lawsuit painted him as a racist vulgarian and teller of rape jokes (Martinez has denied the allegations). Three months after that, Rapp CEO Alexei Orlov stepped down amid accusations that he, too, took a Neanderthal's view of women and minorities. In January, Campbell Ewald's CEO resigned after an employee emailed the office about "Ghetto Day." And on and on and on…

Yet among those sadly similar stories, Roberts stood out. He was more accomplished, more respected and far more well-known than his fellow offenders. He was also the quickest to stanch the bleeding: Three days after the initial story was published, as everyone from Pepsi's Brad Jakeman to Airbnb's Jonathan Mildenhall to JPMorgan Chase's Kristin Lemkau was blasting him on Twitter, Roberts stepped down.

"'Fail fast, fix fast, learn fast' is a leadership maxim I advocate," Roberts said in a statement at the time. "When discussing with Business Insider evolving career priorities and new ways of work/life integration, I failed exceptionally fast."

That Roberts went from offender to public enemy No. 1 to exile as quickly as he did—over the course of a weekend, in fact—shows just how low the industry's tolerance for White Man's Ignorance had become by that point. And it was only July.

In December, months after a trio of blue chip marketers ordered their agencies to diversify or lose their business, Roberts re-emerged on New Zealand TV, expressing regret for his comments, but sticking with the idea that there's too much focus on gender.

"I think the most important thing for society is that we have leaders in the right jobs doing the right things in the right way," he said, "whether they are men or women, right?" 

He might not have been the year's worst offender, and how large a stain this leaves on his legacy we still don't know. But Roberts' downfall signaled the end of an era in 2016, and the beginning—maybe—of a new one.

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